AKA Abraham Bacoln

Anatomy of a Photo II
July 10, 2009, 12:48 pm
Filed under: photography

NOTE: I was planning on writing this before this image got submitted to reddit and got thousands of views and now I can’t decide if its popularity is incentive or disincentive to write. Good thing I already have some inertia – now it’s too late regardless. PLEASE WATCH OUT EVERYONE I HAVE BEGUN TO WRITE.

You’ll remember back in May I wrote the first Anatomy of a Photo about the picture of me in the top hat. I had fun writing and it created a bit of conversation (though oddly enough everywhere but on the blog entry itself). And hell, if you know me you know I’ll go on just to hear myself talk, so I’m bound to write for the same reason, right? Right.

So here’s how “Good Lord! That was unexpected!” came to be. The other day, maybe … maybe Tuesday, let’s say … I was sitting at the computer running my hands through my hair. This is the longest my hair has been since 1995, if you can believe it. I turned to say something to Casey and she stopped me and said, “Your hair looks AMAZING. Go see.” So I did.

I think I’ve proven enough times before that I’m more than willing to make myself look like a goofball if it’ll mean a good picture, and so of course when I got to the mirror and saw just how stupid I looked, well, I knew it was time to begin plotting. The conversation was something like this: “What does it look like? A crazy professor? Egon Spengler? Where could I find a lab coat? Oooh, I look startled. What would startle me? A beaker of acid exploding, something got set on fire? Wait, where am I going to find a laboratory that’ll let me shoot there?” and so on. As I practiced making frightened faces (trying to channel the spirit of Doctor Emmett Brown) I decided against the science experiment aspect of the picture. Too hard to find a location, too hard to find the props.

The inspiration came in the form of a question: what would it be most silly for a grown man to be frightened of?

And thus the idea was born.

I didn’t have much hope for a jack-in-the-box picture, though, because seriously, who has a jack-in-the-box? Not me, that’s who. However, the other day I was working at the store out in the ‘burbs and after work we went out to dinner, and right down the street from where we ate is a Toys R Us. I went there and actually had to ask someone where the jacks-in-the-boxes were. I bought one. Just for you, just for this picture.

I couldn’t shoot that night, though, for two reasons: one, I didn’t know yet where I was going to do this, and two, the sun was going down and I knew I wasn’t going to waste a good idea on harsh flat incandescent light. While on the porch I realized I could just set up in the middle of the street, why not, and there most of the details were finalized.

I spent that night thinking through the shot, which is something I almost never do. Normally by the time I’m thinking about the shot I’ve already edited it and posted it to Flickr, and only then do I realize all the things I should have done differently. I know how anxious I can get while in the middle of shooting something that’s not spontaneous, especially when I plan to put my dining room table in the middle of a public street (a one-way street, but a public street nonetheless) and so I made a point to make a list of everything I would need so that the next day I could pack it all up and not have to keep running back to the house for one last thing. The list reads as follows: spray bottle with water, comb, mirror, hand towel, tripod, camera with 15-35mm lens, jack-in-the-box, table, glasses, tablecloth, white tape.

Yesterday came, and I got off work, and I waited for the sun to go down some so that the shadows would be pretty even, and finally the time had arrived to go shoot. My beautiful assistant Casey and I dragged everything out there and set it up. The tape was to mark the exact placement of the table and tripod in the off chance that we got one picture shot and a huge truck came and we had to move it all – I wanted to be able to get everything back in place perfectly. It also came in handy in keeping the tablecloth down, as it was a bit breezy.

At this point I have to compliment Casey – I couldn’t ask for a better assistant. It’s obvious that she’s done work in the theater with prop wrangling, marking places, and directing people on how to move. Everything went twice as fast with her there, and kept me from going overboard into panic about the light fading between shots because I was taking too long setting everything up, etc.

We took the dry-hair picture first, of course, with about 20 takes on the same theme: me being startled and looking like a muppet. I concentrated on being Beaker with maybe 10% Animal thrown in. Once we were satisfied we had the right shot it was time to wet my hair and comb everything down, a point from which there was no going back. If something was screwed up with the first image I could have dried my hair again, but by then the light would have changed too much. The wet hair pics were taken (an out-take of which will be published on my Flickr eventually because I like it as a stand-alone) and then we were done. That’s right about when some disgruntled guy in a mini-van drove by and glared at us for being in the road, even as we were moving the table out of his way.

So, as for the technical aspects:

I took this with the wide-angle lens because, well, pictures shot really wide look goofy, and the last thing I wanted was to shoot telephoto with shallow depth of field making a serious image out of a guy being frightened by a child’s toy. Ultra-wide puts everything on the same plane, more or less. Because it was so wide the camera and tripod were literally pressed against the edge of the table, maybe two feet from my face. If they had been any farther back I would have just been a small speck in the middle of a neighborhood panorama.

Originally the shot was envisioned facing the other direction. However, after the first two test shots it was obvious that a big tree in the background was throwing everything out of balance. We looked at an angle shot, but that destroyed the lines of the road, table, and buildings. However, we found a place that worked just fine facing the other way, so we tore up all the tape and set everything up all over again.

One reason I wanted it in the middle of the road – and facing straight down the road – is that the wide-angle makes this great group of lines converge right in the middle. The side edges of the table, the street, the sidewalks, the roof lines of the buildings, even the power lines – they all point right to the middle, forcing the viewer’s eye and saying that even though the image may be shot in ultra-wide the only thing you need to look at is right here. To emphasize that effect I did some moderate vignetting on each of the images (something I’ve avoided lately as super-vignetted faux-Lomo images are already looking dated) to darken the edges and make the middle look brighter by comparison.

I went with a pretty high-contrast edit, pumping up the vibrance of the colors. Bright colors make for good silly, and I think they came across well. Still, the houses and grass and so forth were subdued and flat enough that the jack-in-the-box takes the front of the image in terms of attraction via color. That’s also why I wore a white t-shirt and used a white tablecloth – to make sure nothing in the center detracted from the toy.

The glasses were just to help me look extra dorky.

So there you have it – the analysis behind the conception, planning, setup, and execution of one of my favorite images of recent history. If I took this much time to think through all of my shots I’d be a hell of a lot better photographer.

4 Comments so far
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See, this is exactly why your shots are so amazing – the time, effort, and energy you put into them are incredibly admirable. You, sir, have talent.

Comment by Jana

So, how does it feel to have 60,000* fans?

* information accurate at time of posting

Comment by Atox

amazing….you should really start blogging or podcasting short simple photography lessons. I love the logical approach you take on photography in general.

Comment by Brady

Damn, that is so cool! And the descriptions of how and why are interesting even for someone with no interest in photography. You’re a great writer AND a great photographer.

Comment by Alison

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